Originally created 02/04/05

Jags driven by desire to succeed



The loss still lingers in Sam Barth's mind.

En route to a 9-6 defeat in last season's NCAA Division II Tournament opener against North Florida, Augusta State twice blew late-inning leads. The Jaguars eventually lost in the 13th inning and were eliminated by Pfeiffer in their next game.

"It kind of left a sour taste in our mouth after last season," said Barth, the Jaguars' senior catcher.

Despite setting a school record with 38 wins, Augusta State finished wanting more. Now, the Jaguars look to make a repeat appearance in the regionals.

Augusta State opens its season at 2 p.m. today, when it plays host to Carson-Newman at Jaguar Field.

"We've waited for too long since the end of last season," senior second baseman Lee Rose said. "We're ready to go."

The Jaguars have high hopes for this year, especially considering the players returning. Seven of eight position players are back, including Barth, Rose, junior shortstop Bennett Mayfield, junior third baseman Garrick McGrath, junior outfielder Chris Demons, senior outfielder Brandon Sumlin and sophomore outfielder Kevin Kelley.

Barth, who ended 2004 on a 34-game hitting streak, batted a Peach Belt-best .400 with 45 RBI. Mayfield hit .389 with 43 RBI and was followed by Demons (.355, five triples), Rose (.349, 18 steals) and McGrath (.332, eight homers, 46 RBI).

Those players helped Augusta State string together an early 15-game winning streak; the Jaguars knocked off two top-10 opponents during the stretch. The team turned that momentum into a South Atlantic Regional berth, the school's first postseason appearance since 1978.

In the regional opener, Augusta State scored two runs in the ninth against North Florida to a take a 5-4 lead. But the Ospreys tied the game in the bottom of the inning.

The teams traded runs in the 11th inning, before North Florida's Matt Oxendine launched a game-winning three-run homer in the bottom of the 13th.

"We had North Florida down for the count," Barth said. "It just came down to mental mistakes. But all of us are back. We know what it's like to lose a game like that."

The Jaguars lost their top starting pitcher, David Riviera (6-0, 1.96 ERA), to arm problems and academic ineligibility. Junior right-hander Justin Walker (7-5, 3.02) will be the opening-day starter.

Senior transfer Steven Spragg of Cherry Valley, Ontario, Canada, is expected to be the team's No. 2 starter. Spragg throws strikes on a consistent basis and reaches the low 90s with his fastball.

Presbyterian transfer Max Fisher will pitch third in the rotation. Like Spragg, Fisher also challenges hitters.

If one of those three falters, Augusta State coach Skip Fite said he can draw from a deep pitching staff, which also includes sophomore closer Cody Williams (12 saves).

"I feel like we've got 12 guys we can put out there," he said. "That's where we're better, pitching depth."

With the talent on the team, Fite hopes the Jaguars avoid complacency.

"We've got a bunch of pretty good players, not superstars," he said. "The past few years, we've been hungry. I hope that mentality doesn't change.

"If they play as hard as they have in the past, success will come."

Reach Chris Gay at (706) 823-3645 or chris.gay@augustachronicle.com.

CONFERENCE: Peach Belt

COACH: Skip Fite, 21st year (500-519)

2004 RECORD: 38-18 (19-11)

2004 POSTSEASON: lost to North Florida and Pfeiffer in Division II playoffs

RETURNING STARTERS: C Sam Barth (Sr., .400, 19 2B, 3 HR, 45 RBI), OF Chris Demons (Jr., .355, 5 HR, 31 RBI, 29 BB); SS Bennett Mayfield (Jr., .389, 5 HR, 43 RBI); 2B Lee Rose (Sr., .349, 3 HR, 32 RBI, 18 SB), 3B Garrick McGrath (Jr., .332, 8 HR, 46 RBI), OF Brandon Sumlin (Sr., .273, 11 2B, 16 RBI), OF Kevin Kelley (So., .270, 13 2B, 27 RBI, 19 SB); RP Cody Williams (So., 1-2, 4.50 ERA, 12 saves), SP Justin Walker (Jr., 7-5, 3.02 ERA)

PLAYERS TO WATCH: RHP Steven Spragg (Sr.), RHP Max Fisher (So.), LHP David Beumel (Jr.)

KEEP AN EYE ON: Demons. The junior outfielder has continued to grow into his position as a collegiate player since graduating from Glenn Hills. He has the speed, but stole just 15 bases last year. Expect that number to increase as Demons continues to elevate his entire game.

NOTES: For the first time in school history, the Jaguars open the season nationally-ranked at No. 14 by Collegiate Baseball magazine. ... Last year, the team set a school record for wins. ... Augusta State made postseason play for the first time since 1978. ... The Jaguars return seven position players, including all-conference and all-region standouts Barth and Mayfield. ... Williams, who set a school record for saves, was named the 2004 Peach Belt Freshman of the Year. ... After a stellar 2004 season, David Riviera (6-0, 1.96 ERA, 49 K, 19 BB) is academically ineligible.

OUTLOOK: Last year's team used its underdog tag to upend unsuspecting opponents. Will the Jaguars have the same drive after having success last year? This team should be able to score runs in a variety of ways, and it should have enough pitching depth for another postseason run. Fite's job will be to make sure his guys don't get complacent. If Augusta State can continue to show scrappiness, it'll be tough to beat. A lot will be learned in the first few weeks when Augusta State plays host to No. 9 Columbus State (Feb. 12-13) and Lander (Feb. 19-20).